Whether it’s being used as a communications tool for dissidents during the Arab Spring uprisings or a real-time newswire about events like the mass shooting at Sandy Hook elementary school, Twitter has become a crucial platform for speech of all kinds — and in many cases that speech is unpleasant and even offensive. That may be taken for granted in the United States, but it doesn’t go over well in other countries with different views about speech, and that is making things increasingly difficult for Twitter. For now at least — to its credit — it seems determined to remain the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party.”
Last fall, a Twitter hashtag — #UnBonJuif, or A Good Jew — resulted in a number of anti-Semitic posts. Although Twitter removed the offending tweets after a complaint by the Union of Jewish French Students (UEJF), the group was not satisfied and sued to force the service to reveal the identities of those who posted the messages. A French court eventually agreed to this demand, since anti-Semitic comments and other “hate speech” are illegal in that country.
So far, Twitter has not complied with the court order — it is appealing the judgement, arguing that since it is a U.S. company it only has to comply with such demands from U.S. courts and other authorities. Meanwhile, the UEJF said it plans to file a second lawsuit in criminal court, seeking damages of $50 million for Twitter’s failure to provide the data.
A private company, but a platform for public speech
Twitter has revealed user data in several cases after being forced to do so by U.S. courts, including personal data related to several users who were supporters of WikiLeaks, such as Icelandic MP Birgitta Jonsdottir and hacker Jacob Appelbaum. Twitter also handed over tweets by two members of the Occupy Wall Street movement, after being forced to do so by a court order, although it fought against both of these decisions — and also made the request for the Occupy supporter’s data public even though it was asked not to do so.
What makes these kinds of cases so difficult is that Twitter is a private corporation with a proprietary platform, and yet it is being used as a public communications vehicle around the world, and one whose free-speech aspects are becoming increasingly important. And while we may all agree that certain types of speech are offensive, the idea that governments or courts can force Twitter to reveal the identities of those users is troubling in the extreme.
While Facebook (s fb) and to some extent Google (s goog) are also being used in this kind of context, Twitter is unique in the sense that it explicitly allows people to use pseudonyms. Facebook has a firm policy on the use of “real” or verified names, and while Google somewhat grudgingly allowed users to add pseudonyms to their Google+ accounts after what some called the “nym wars,” the service is still designed primarily for “real” names. Twitter is one of the only communications platforms of its size and reach that freely allows users to be known by pseudonyms.
As sociologist Zeynep Tufekci and Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation (among others) have argued, anonymity or pseudonymity may allow for all kinds of offensive behavior — including the anti-Semitic comments in France and racist tweets posted by a number of users following the re-election of President Barack Obama — but protecting users’ identities is also a crucial factor that allows Twitter to be used as a communications tool by all kinds of disadvantaged groups, including political dissidents.
The free-speech wing of the free-speech party
The pressure on Twitter to resist demands like the one from France stems in part from this, and also from repeated comments from the company’s chief legal counsel, Alex Macgillivray, and CEO Dick Costolo that they are committed to being the “free-speech wing of the free-speech party.” The company may get criticized by some (including us) for the way it has shut down parts of its ecosystem, but its commitment to the rights of users remains.
The problem for Twitter is that as it becomes more global, it is running into country-specific demands like the one from France — or the one from Germany that led Twitter to block access to certain neo-Nazi tweets, since that kind of speech is also against the law. The risk here is that the network could easily fall victim to every government’s demands for user identities or censorship in even the most ridiculous cases, such as Turkey’s prohibition on comments that “insult Turkishness.”
If Twitter backs down on the French order, what is to stop Syria from forcing it to reveal the identities of dissidents, or Iran from forcing it to reveal who is posting anti-Muslim comments — or Britain from forcing it to identify those who were involved in the London riots, or those who post about cases covered by the country’s bizarre “super-injunctions”? Almost every country seems to have certain things that it prohibits people from saying publicly and is willing to go to court over.
But the bottom line is that freedom of speech — however offensive that speech might be — is a principle that needs all the help it can get, and Twitter deserves some credit for sticking to its guns, despite the obvious pressures it must be feeling.